With the single elimination format eliminating the Sun, Sparks, Lynx and Wings, we have the matchups set for the best of five semifinals.
Seattle will host the Mercury who are playing some of their best basketball of the season, especially DeWanna Bonner, but will face the league’s top team.
In the other series the Mystics and Atlanta will duel after the Mystics eliminated the Sparks, while the Dream enjoyed their double bye for finishing second.
Phoenix (20-14, 5th seed) vs. Seattle (26-8, 1st seed):
How they got here: Phoenix started the year with one of the top records before struggling due to an injury to Sancho Lyttle. With Bonner moving to the Power Forward position the Mercury have had success as they won six in a row, including a pair of playoff games over the Wings in the first round and the Suns in the second round. Meanwhile, there were breakout performances of varying degrees from Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Natasha Howard to help them to the league’s best record and net efficiency. Seattle has also been hot of late winning eight of nine heading into the playoffs.
Key battles: With Breanna Stewart matched up on DeWanna Bonner, the Mercury might struggle as they will have to rely even more on the duo of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. Bonner has put up personal best for points (29) and rebounds (18) as she has recorded consecutive double-doubles. Stewart should be able to outscore and rebound Bonner most games, which is a bad sign for Phoenix. Another key for a Mercury win is to limit opponents to under 80 points (13-2 in such games) while going against a Storm team that finished second in offensive rating and averaged 87 points per game (second highest in the league).
Seattle has a strong starting five that has remained healthy most of the season and have a record of 23-4 when Stewart, Loyd, Howard, Sue Bird and Alysha Clark all start. The Storm set a league record for three’s in a season with 307, and were the only team to connect on more threes than Phoenix and score a higher percentage of their points from beyond the arc. A key for Seattle to end this early will be to defend their home court as not only did they have the best road record in the league at 13-4, but Phoenix finished with the worst home record, 9-8, of any playoff team.
Prediction: There is a reason Seattle finished with the best record in the league, a combination of depth and MVP plays from Stewart should mean the Storm win this series in four games, with Taurasi and Griner pairing up to win at least one.
Washington (22-12, 3rd seed) vs Atlanta (23-13, 2nd seed):
How they got here: Washington plain and simple steamrolled a tired Sparks team that was playing a third game in five days after traveling across the country twice. The Mystics can beat you in such a wide variety of ways with their depth. The show is run through Elena Delle Donne who played at an MVP level after missing a few games early in the season. Atlanta was the hottest team in the league the second half of the season after starting 8-9. They won eight straight and 14 of 15 with their only loss coming at the hands of the Mystics.
Key battles: Delle Donne was able to score 28 and collect 16 rebounds in the Mystics’ lone win this season against the Dream, so it will be up to Jessica Breland to find a way to contain Delle Donne in this series. Washington will need to find scoring from other players, which will be the real challenge against the league’s most efficient defence that also allowed opponents to connect on 32.1% of threes — the second best in the league. Luckily the Mystics were able to connect on 39% against the Sparks who lead the league, so they know they can meet the challenge.
If the Mystics manage to score at least 90 points they should be in good shape as they have a record of 11-1 when doing so, while Atlanta is 1-5 when their opponent reaches 90. Atlanta has their own pressure to hit a magic number, this time 80, because when they do so they are 16-3 while Washington is 16-0 when holding opponents below that number. Another contributing factor to both teams’ success is collecting rebounds. Washington is 15-1 when it wins the rebounding battle, but if Atlanta wins they have a record of 12-3. Also, the team with the lead at half will have a large advantage as the Mystics are 18-1 with the lead at the break, and Atlanta is 15-1 with the lead so a strong start will be important. In the event of a close game the Mystics have won all 20 games in which they’ve held the lead with five to go. Meanwhile the Dream are unbeaten in their 11 games decided by less than six points.
Prediction: In such a close series where both teams have the same strengths I’m going with Washington in five due to the absence of Atlanta’s lone All-Star in Angel McCoughtry while Washington can play through Delle Donne.